Today’s announcement by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson that the British public should be persuaded of the benefits of genetically modified crops has predictably caused controversy.
The top message from anti-GM campaigners seems to be ‘you’re wrong about GM – the public don’t want it’. GM Freeze, quoted in the Telegraph, says: “The message is clear: the public do not want GM.”
While there is no doubt some truth in this, the fact that ‘the public’ have reservations about GM has no bearing on whether GM is safe and effective; public opinion is not evidence for risks from GM. But could ‘people don’t want GM’ be a valuable argument for the Government ignoring scientific evidence about potential benefits?
I found a prime example of the conflict between science and public opinion in this article on GM from the Daily Mail. The piece is scientifically flawed, most notably by quoting the study by Seralini which was rejected by the European Food Safety Authority. However, the comments below the article are very much along the lines of ‘politicians should know everyone is anti GM’.
When a plant scientist pointed out scientific flaws, his comment was ‘thumbed down’ by lots of readers, as was the next commenter who called for ‘our most trusted and respected scientists to comment’ (if you want to thumb them back up, take a moment to click on this link).
Other than leaving me generally frustrated, this argument has raised in my mind an interesting question, predictably nothing to do with GM. When science and public opinion conflict, which should shape the policy?
Owen Paterson said: “I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation.”
Is influencing public opinion in this way appropriate? In my mind, if he uses science to inform this very valuable debate it can only be a good thing, but I would be very interested to hear your views, as I was to read Mark Lynas’ GM speech from today.